In the basement of the well-worn Kingman courthouse, the spectators who've arrived for the Clawson bail hearing are spilling out into the hall. As they wander around in the hall's narrow dead end, their faces are alert for word from within the closet-sized courtroom that a way has been found for them to crowd in and hear the details of Christine Clawson's death by starvation.
When a public defender announces a change in courtroom at last, the small throng shuffles up the old staircase to a room as large as the ones you see in TV trials. Bringing up the rear of the procession of about 35 are Marvin and Linda Clawson, who were indicted last October for the first-degree murder of their ten-week-old daughter. At the time of her death on October 10, Christine Clawson weighed eleven ounces less than she did at birth. Perhaps because her death came less than a year after Marvin Clawson was convicted of animal cruelty for starving his dog, the Clawsons have become the most notorious parents in Kingman. But you wouldn't know from their actions that their reputation is sinister. Dressed in bright-orange jail uniforms and ankle manacles, they are smiling and nodding at friends like greeters in a receiving line.
"All these people are here in support of the Clawsons, which just shows you how much support they have," someone is saying as she takes her seat in the new courtroom. "You could not have seen two prouder people when their baby was born. It's just sad what has happened to those kids."
It's sad to the onlooker not only because of the horror of young death, but because the Clawsons themselves, who are mentally handicapped, are sad figures. The Clawsons are sad but, according to the friends gathered here, they're not cruel. Once all are settled in their chairs, the Clawsons' friends and family members take to the stand one by one to insist that these two "slow" kids didn't plan their daughter's withering death. "When I seen that child, it was never dirty, it was never crying, and it always looked well cared for," says Ravenal Suratt, a friend. Suratt watched Linda Clawson feed Christine the afternoon before the baby died. How can a fed baby die from starvation?
How the Clawsons loved that baby! raves Norman Russell, the former senior pastor at Kingman Christian Church, where the Clawsons are members. Whenever they arrived at church, it was with the child and a full bottle; whenever they left, the bottle was empty.
"That baby always had a bottle in its mouth," says Merle Jenner, Linda Clawson's father.
If close observers count for anything, Marvin and Linda Clawson didn't want their baby to die. And yet despite the rah-rah mood in the courtroom, as the afternoon winds on, the story of Christine Clawson's little life begins to reveal itself as a set of nagging questions.
There is, for instance, the question of whether Marvin and Linda, whose learning disabilities and IQ's classify them as being of "borderline" intelligence--or only slightly better than retarded--are capable of caring for a child. Is it possible that their handicaps killed their baby?
Public defender Ken Everett would like the judge to think so, since incompetence would put the lie to the charge of premeditated murder. Everett calls to the stand Johnny Fleming, a former fellow worker of Marvin's at Martin Swanty Chrysler-Plymouth, where the two men once detailed cars. Fleming testifies that Marvin had a hard time finishing his work without inordinate supervision, and that the problem was severe enough to cause Fleming to doubt Marvin's potential as a parent. "I don't believe he would follow through [in caring for a baby]," says Fleming. "I don't want to hurt his feelings, but, no, I wouldn't trust him with my child."
The opinion doesn't wash with Mohave County prosecutor Eric Larsen. He tries to score the point that Marvin would have to be hugely dysfunctional to forget to feed his daughter--perhaps more dysfunctional than Marvin can possibly be, seeing as how he holds down a job and remembers to feed himself. "In the matters that are most important to Marvin Clawson, is he capable of taking care of them?" Larsen asks.
"I believe he is," says Fleming.
Larsen will elaborate later: "I think they are two people with limited outlooks for their future, but I think that they are quite capable of performing in society as productive people." He believes Christine died because her parents knowledgeably abused her.
There's the question of ignorance, an important one when talking about Linda Clawson, who gave birth and began raising her daughter totally without the benefit of prenatal care. The reasons are ironic, and damning of Arizona's cold-hearted political climate that doesn't make poor mothers a priority: Linda was married to a man whose $4-an-hour salary wouldn't stretch to cover doctors' fees, yet was unable to obtain help from AHCCCS in a state where people who dwell in near poverty are nonetheless considered way too well-heeled to qualify. The result was a sick baby and an ignorant mom: Before Christine's birth, Linda received no instructions in the care of a normal infant, much less one that needed to be tended with an extra dose of expertise.
Who in the community saw that a child's well-being was at stake and took responsibility for educating this unprepared mother?
More than once, as grandparents and ministers explain that Christine Clawson didn't look well, Judge Leonard Langford leans across the bench to stare the witnesses in the eyes and ask them what they did about it.
"When did you come to the conclusion that Linda and Marvin need extra guidance in caring for a child?" he asks their minister pointedly. And when Russell admits that he knew it during premarital counseling but said nothing, did nothing throughout the pregnancy and beyond, the judge leans back as though he's suddenly tired of the human race.
Other themes surface at the hearing. Warren Micale, another minister at Kingman Christian Church, expresses surprise at the level of health care provided to Christine by the Clawsons' pediatrician, Dr. Ahmad Khan--a quality of care far below the conscientious one Micale believes he and his wife have experienced at the hands of their own doctors. Perhaps Khan should have anticipated that these handicapped parents would have special problems and kept a more careful eye on them, Micale suggests.
(It's not a blame-shifting Larsen will even entertain. He says later, "I do not see any incompetence on Dr. Khan's part. Who in their right mind could have imagined parents failing to feed their child?")
Marvin's father, Otho Clawson, declares that Christine's head was so ungainly that it looked like someone had stuck a normal-sized doll head onto the body of a Barbie. There was something very wrong with her that the doctors never diagnosed, he says. He believes that is why she died.
(Larsen says later that his strongest witnesses are the medical experts who will testify to Christine's good prognosis after her medical problems at birth had been thoroughly tested and resolved.)
It's painful to hear again and again a life story that may have amounted to little more than ten weeks of agony for Christine. And there is a moment when the emotion in the courtroom breaks free. As the day grinds to a close and Judge Langford cuts short the prosecutor's questions, Larsen gives in to pique and throws his pencil forcefully toward the bench. It whizzes to the floor about ten feet in front of the prosecution table. The entire audience of spectators murmurs with surprise, and maybe relief, as though Larsen's loss of control has provided their own pressured feelings with a safety valve.
The decision comes down the next day: Bond is granted and set at $10,000 apiece, a paltry sum when the crime in question is murder. Before nightfall the Clawsons' parents and friends have raised the money, and the couple is at home with Linda's parents, thrilled to the bone to be together and to have access to a private shower. Their dog, Lisa, separated from them for three months, is loath to let them out of her sight.
It could all seem very snug, this picture of family unity that has grown out of a courtroom tableau of community support. It would seem snug if the shadow dimming the bright picture wasn't the photographs of Christine Clawson's tiny, bony corpse that are languishing over in Larsen's office.
IF YOU DRIVE NORTH on Highway 40 from Kingman's downtown, you come to Birdland. It lies past the motels and coffee shops and grocery stores of middle-class tourism; it even lies past the used car lots. Its closest neighbor is the vast salvage yard that stretches along the east side of the freeway, a blight of thousands of dark rotting hulls of cars. In mood, the large plot of scruffy land to the west isn't very different.
Like a cruel joke, Birdland's street signs carry the names of the most graceful birds--Dove, Swan, Oriole. The area isn't a mobile home park, although many of the small, bare lots are pocked with trailers instead of squat houses. And it isn't so much a neighborhood as it is a collection of the symbols of marginal lives: old unpainted buses, spindly clotheslines, brush-covered earth, walls where the paint has disappeared and revealed raw patches like sores. Wherever there's a sign of effort, the effect is eccentric instead of helpful, as when someone has clustered together on a dirt lawn a collection of plastic yard animals.
This is the bleak outfield of forgotten people where Marvin and Linda Clawson lived. But being there together was not life on the fringe for the Clawsons: It meant belonging to someone after a lifetime of fearing they'd never fit in.
They met at Kingman High when they were sixteen. They were alike in one way then--they were both "slow" kids, enrolled in special-education classes--but they were different in enough ways that, once they'd bonded years later, their relationship provided both of them with extra strengths.
Of the two, Marvin was more withdrawn. Even as a small boy, his fear of rejection had made him a loner. His hygiene was poor, his teeth were so crooked and abundant that his mouth couldn't have seemed fuller if he'd had a fist in it. He wasn't the smartest kid in the world. When he was a boy, he told his father that the other schoolchildren called him a "retardo." (IQ tests performed in adolescence ranked him with an overall score of 80, only 11 points above the total that is usually considered to denote mental retardation. Most experts would classify him as "borderline," or slow.)
It is doubtful that his bleeding ego got bandaged at home. Although Otho Clawson has supported his son unwaveringly throughout Marvin's arrest, the boy's early home life wasn't especially stimulating. All four of the "slow" Clawson children were enrolled in special ed, and Otho says of himself, in terms of slowness, "I guess I was, too."
It was not a culturally advantaged home in other ways. Otho, who has an eighth-grade education, had once aspired to the ministry, but his ambition got lost somehow in a lifetime of jobs in auto salvage, as a security guard, as a gas station attendant. His religious conviction endured in the form of churchgoing and Bible reading. At least one part of his life has seemed irreconcilable with his professed love for the Lord: a 1986 conviction for child molestation, wherein he confessed to numerous fondlings of his eleven-year-old daughter. A probation officer wrote at the time that Otho seemed to have little understanding of the destructiveness of his acts. Marvin's father went to jail for sixty days.
The values of the home where Marvin grew up allowed the molested child and her mother to continue living with Otho, as though nothing had happened, throughout the time he stood indicted of coming on to his daughter.
By all accounts, Marvin emerged from this milieu as a gentle boy. Linda came to love him for his kindness to others, and his father says that if Marvin found a snake in the yard, he'd move it instead of killing it. But he possessed so little self-esteem that, even when he and Linda became friends in school, he didn't dare confess his deeper feelings for her. "I didn't think that I had a chance," he says. "That's the way my luck has always run."
Even taking her disabilities into account, Linda was a contrast to Marvin. The product of protective parents, she had always been a determined kid. "It takes me three chances where it would take somebody else one chance to get it, but if somebody sticks with me and helps me out, I do it just as well as the next person," she says of her abilities. Her mother, Kathleen Jenner, remembers sequestering herself in a back bedroom when Linda was small so that she wouldn't have to watch the child hurt herself while learning to ride the bike Linda insisted she could master.
She has needed every ounce of her strong will. Her own overall IQ score, last tested in 1979, was 73, just four points above the "mildly retarded" range. As if her learning disabilities weren't enough, she's afflicted with a vision problem so severe that, even when peering through her Coke-bottle glasses, she doesn't see well. As an adolescent, her face was overtaken with virulent pustular acne; she has bad teeth. She was a bundle of doubts about herself in school, but she was not without help.
Her mother, a phone company worker, was concerned enough about Linda's disadvantages that she is remembered as a constant, shielding presence by one of Linda's high school teachers. Her father, a disabled auto painter, frankly dotes on her. Perhaps it was their affection that enabled the girl to make friends and pursue hobbies--at one point she even took figure-skating lessons. At any rate, because her world was not as ungiving as Marvin's she became his friend. "I always tried to help him out through high school because he always had an attitude like nobody cared about him," she says.
For many years it wasn't more than that. Then Marvin finally "just took it on a hope" that Linda would consent to be his girl. They were married a year later in 1987, in the Kingman Christian Church, when they were 23.
"I tell her that she is cared for and not everybody is against her," he says.
"I think that I've [done] a good job to help him . . . feel more reassurance about himself," she says.
Their family members say they had no misgivings about the marriage, no uneasiness that the damaged couple would be unable to care for themselves or each other. They weren't alarmed, either, by Marvin and Linda's desire for a family, even though the couple's risk of producing children with mental handicaps was significant. (Some studies indicate that two retarded parents have about a 40 percent chance of producing retarded children. Although experts hesitate to speculate about "borderline" parents, most of them agree that any child's intelligence is the result of genetic factors and cultural surroundings--an equation that from the beginning didn't bode well for Christine.)
Otho was complacent about the future, even though he'd watched Marvin fail at a series of jobs before finding one that lasted at Martin Swanty's. "I felt like he was just too slow," says Otho of the jobs that were lost. "He had trouble understanding instructions and most supervisors do not like to keep repeating themselves." (The Clawsons' high school special-ed teacher, May Nelson, had her own problems teaching these two, although she says Marvin seemed to catch on more quickly than Linda. She says, "I wouldn't say you had to tell them over and over, but you certainly had to explain thoroughly what you wanted them to do.")
Otho thought the marriage might actually be a turning point for these difficulties: "I felt like it would give him some responsibility. There were some other people I know who were far worse off and they were able to marry." (And they do. Even among the frankly retarded, some experts estimate that 80 percent whose IQ's are between 55 and 70 marry.) Some onlookers thought the couple would do well because they believed there was nothing really wrong with Linda and Marvin. For instance, when Reverend Micale is asked whether the Clawsons are mentally handicapped, he says, "I don't think so." He characterizes Marvin as an "intelligent kid" and says of Linda that "she may seem like she doesn't understand things, but I think she is a lot more intelligent than people are giving her credit for."
And yet, at least one community member had second thoughts: Clint Case, a Kingman recreational therapist who has been providing industrial training to the handicapped for forty years. Before the Clawsons married, Marvin enrolled in one of Case's furniture-assembling workshops, and Case says that Marvin's problems with comprehension were actually puzzling--that Case has successfully taught people afflicted with Down's syndrome more than he was able to impress upon Marvin.
"He was off in space, almost a catatonic state," says Case. "It was unusual to find a person who completely was not there. . . . When I heard they had hung first-degree [murder] on him, I got upset because there is no malice in the boy's heart. He just couldn't function to any degree."
Out of the Clawsons' first months of marriage there surfaced an incident and then a circumstance that could not have foreshadowed Christine's death more perfectly if someone in Hollywood had written them. The incident was the mysterious dwindling of Ginger.
Ginger was an Australian shepherd who late in 1987 was taken forcibly from the Clawsons by Mohave County animal control. Australian shepherds are big dogs and this one should have weighed about 45 pounds. When she was claimed by animal control, Ginger weighed 26: She looked like ribs with hide stretched over them. Her skinny condition was pointed out to the authorities, according to Linda, by a neighbor who thought the animal was lying dead in the yard.
Within six weeks of the time Ginger rode off to the kennel, she had eaten her way back to a normal weight and was put up for adoption.
At his trial for animal cruelty, Marvin Clawson claimed that he fed Ginger three times a day; it was her unwillingness to wean her seven pups that had resulted in their literally draining her dry. (Veterinarians say that a dog who's nursing may lose some weight, perhaps up to five pounds on a large dog, but that an enormous weight loss like Ginger's cannot be accounted for through motherhood.) Despite his conviction and a heavy fine, Marvin sticks to this story today and points to his other dog, Lisa, who's as plump as a turkey's breast.
He says he did nothing wrong, that the problem was in the dog. It's the same thing he would say when his daughter died.
The other thing that happened was that, upon discovering she was pregnant a few months after her wedding, Linda Clawson was unable to obtain prenatal care. Because she couldn't get it, her child stood a much greater chance of being born with severe health problems than if Christine had been properly monitored as she developed.
Linda's health care fell through the cracks because of bureaucracy and money.
When the Clawsons learned Linda was pregnant, Marvin sought to increase his income; he found a new job assembling cabinets for $4 an hour at American Woodmark. Because of the difficulties of obtaining group health insurance, Linda applied for AHCCCS--only to be told that Marvin's annual salary of $8,300 now exceeded eligibility requirements by about $2,900.
She says she tried to convince a doctor to schedule private payments for her, but the doctors she phoned would not.
After going several rounds with the AHCCCS bureaucracy, she finally qualified in June 1988, about a month before Christine was born. But when she arrived to see the doctor, the secretary couldn't find Linda's AHCCCS authorization in the computer, and she was turned away.
Her only understanding of babies before Christine was born was gleaned from parenting magazines. Marvin's education was even sketchier. "I did what I could on my free time," he says of his efforts to learn about childcare. "I worked eight hours a day so I wasn't home all the time."
Linda wonders now whether she should have asked her parents for financial help. "[But] I was married and I figured my mom and dad had taken care of me all my life. I'd like to try and do something on my own," she says.
The thing she did on her own was produce a terribly ill baby. When Christine was born via Caesarean section, she had breathed her own stool into her lungs, a potentially life-threatening condition known as meconium aspiration. Her right hip was dislocated, her muscle tone seemed exceptionally floppy, and she had difficulty coordinating her sucking, swallowing and breathing. She was almost immediately air-evac'd from Kingman to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, where she spent the first nine days of her life in treatment in the neonatal unit.
Her doctor at St. Joseph's, Dr. Dan Sprague, was sufficiently concerned about some aspects of Christine's appearance that he called in other specialists. ("Basically, [she] looked a little odd," Sprague would later tell a Kingman detective.) Tests were performed to check for chromosomal abnormalities and inborn errors of metabolism, conditions that could have resulted later in many severe problems--including an inability to absorb nutrients known as "failure to thrive." All the tests performed came up negative.
When Christine was released on August 2, her difficulty with bottle feeding had lessened and her weight had increased from seven pounds fifteen ounces at birth to eight pounds two ounces--a growth pattern Sprague considered normal for a newborn who'd been so ill. "Even with our initial concerns, we felt very good and very comfortable at the time of discharge that the baby was doing well and would continue to do well," he told the detective.
Reservations about Christine's discharge, however, were occurring to Melody Lee, the neonatal nurse practitioner who'd cared for Christine. Lee later told the police that during Christine's stay she twice phoned Dr. Ahmad Khan, the Clawsons' pediatrician in Kingman, to urge close follow-up. Her concern was prompted not only by Christine's health history but by a nagging feeling that these particular parents would need extra monitoring when it came to childcare. "Sometimes [when] talking to the mother, I had some concerns about her level of understanding [of] the baby's problems," Lee said. She was worried by incidents like the one when she'd assured Linda over the phone that Linda could visit the baby at any time, only to be asked repeatedly when to come. "It seemed like I had to tell them," Lee said.
Whatever her forebodings, they would have seemed unwarranted to the well-wishers who got caught up in the Clawsons' pleasure at reclaiming their daughter--a daughter who had enlarged by one the circle of those the crippled parents could count on to love them. "I remember the excitement and enthusiasm," says Reverend Micale of those happy days. "They walked into this church and was showing that child off to everyone."
Christine had come home to Birdland.
IF SHE WAS A BURDEN to her parents during her short life, those closest to the Clawsons don't remember hearing about it. Although there was much talk of coping with the baby's persistent health problems, there wasn't much complaining.
In fact, family and church members can only give examples of parental love. Ask for an illustration of the way Christine was treated, and you might hear Reverend Micale go on that when Marvin and Linda brought the baby to church softball games, Linda literally hovered over her to protect her from curious children. Other friends recount how the Clawsons took Christine with them everywhere they went, obtaining a baby sitter only once during her ten weeks of life.
But if they loved their child, the Clawsons didn't know much about her. Although they'd been instructed at St. Joseph's about cord care, baby bathing, temperature taking and the like, it seems clear today that these two understood little about the real state of Christine's health. Saying that she received only a "four-page" letter about Christine from St. Joseph's, Linda explains that she didn't even know her baby's hip was dislocated until public defender Everett mentioned it in court during the bond hearing. "I think if we would have been better informed . . . we would have taken her to a specialist," Linda says.
The "letter" Linda refers to is a discharge summary, handwritten and so jam-packed with medical terminology that, even for someone with normal intelligence, it might read like a foreign language. "On admission, CXR showed a small (R) pneumothorax with RLL patchy infiltrates .2 MAS," it says, for instance. (Christine's hip dislocation, however, is clearly mentioned in the summary.) If hospital staff members tried to explain Christine's condition beyond the summary, perhaps nurse Lee's fears were realized--maybe the information just didn't sink in.
As for other feedback, it never reached the Clawsons. Family and church members testified at the bail hearing that they were concerned about Christine's "color" or the size of her head, and yet they never said anything to the Clawsons about their fears. "In my past I guess I have found that parents don't want to listen that those sorts of things are wrong with their baby," said Reverend Russell.
Because of all the ignorance and the hesitancy, the person who probably was most qualified to look after Christine's health when she left the hospital was pediatrician Ahmad Khan. And the course that Dr. Khan's care took depends on whom you ask.
The Clawsons and Khan, the only pediatrician in Kingman, agree that he saw Christine on August 10, one week after the baby returned from Phoenix. But there the two stories diverge.
The Clawsons say they first saw Khan on August 3, the day after Christine left the hospital. When they returned with her on August 10, they were told she was doing fine by Khan--that there was no reason to return again until the child's routine checkup in two months. (Two months is the typical age for the first "well-baby check," according to many pediatricians, although those asked also said a child with Christine's touch-and-go history should have been seen more often.)
The Clawsons say they didn't think to challenge the two-month interval but just limped along alone with a baby who was beginning to look thin. Their passivity doesn't seem peculiar to professionals who deal widely with the developmentally disabled. "They would take what [the doctor] said like he was God," says former teacher Nelson. "A person in authority they would accept because they wouldn't feel competent to question."
Khan thinks his own story absolves him of any negligence in putting off the Clawsons. His records show, he says, that the only time he saw Christine after her birth was on August 10. (He has no record of the visit on August 3, he says.) He says that on August 10, he asked for a follow-up visit in a month--an appointment he says the Clawsons then missed. (He wanted to see Christine at age one month instead of two because although she'd looked "reasonably well" when she returned from the hospital, he felt "uneasy" about the unresponsiveness of the mother.) The next time he saw Christine, says Khan, was when Marvin toted her into the office in her car carrier more than one month after the missed visit. She was dead from starvation.
Although Khan's account may seem more credible than the story of two dimwitted parents accused of murder, there is a community of parents and grandparents in Kingman who would doubt Khan first. They say he is a doctor who downplays a frantic parent's concerns, sometimes until it's too late. (See related story on page 39.)
Because of Dr. Khan's limited contact with the baby, Christine's medical problems were handled primarily by her mother after the infant left St. Joseph's. (Marvin would later tell the police he didn't participate much in Christine's hands-on care, didn't even hold her much, because she seemed so fragile.) And the problems were vexing.
Linda says that the diaper rash Christine had had since the hospital never cleared up despite diligent applications of everything from Desenex powder to Preparation H, the latter a remedy recommended by a friend. More troubling, beginning at about age seven weeks, Christine wasn't gaining weight.
Numerous friends and relatives remember her concern about it. They remember her saying that, at the behest of someone at church, she'd started putting cereal into Christine's formula. They remember talk of mixing up Christine's formula from scratch, using only natural ingredients. (Girlfriend Ranelle Parker says Linda was delaying that step until she obtained her food stamps for the month, since the proposition was expensive.) At the time of Christine's death, Linda told the police the baby was being fed from 30 to 36 ounces a day.
"I thought she was coming around, that she would gain weight," Linda says.
NO ONE CAN KNOW how much food the baby was offered when it was out of the public eye, but there are witnesses who say that, on the last full day of Christine's life, October 9, she ate at least twice.
Ranelle Parker says she fed the baby herself in the evening, and Christine consumed eight full ounces. Another friend, Ravenal Suratt, says Linda fed the baby in front of her when she and Marvin visited Suratt in the afternoon after church. At that time, the baby ate just a couple of ounces.
On the morning of Monday, October 10, Christine wasn't feeling well: The cold that had hung on for three weeks seemed to be worse. Linda tried to feed her at 10:30, she told the police later, but she wouldn't eat more than an ounce. When Linda tried again at noon, the baby refused the bottle altogether.
Christine was scheduled for her two-month checkup and her first shots with Dr. Khan that day, but because she was ill Linda didn't want her inoculated. The mother phoned and rescheduled for Wednesday. Then, fretting about the baby's stuffy nose, she called the pharmacy for a recommendation on over-the-counter medication. Because Linda doesn't drive, she waited for Marvin to return home at three o'clock and ferry her and the baby to the drugstore.
When he arrived, Marvin lifted the still baby out of her playpen to carry her to the car. He thought she stirred and looked at him and went back to sleep. When they reached Smith's Food and Drug, Linda saw suddenly that the baby's lips and tongue had turned blue. They decided to head for Dr. Khan's office.
It was Marvin who carried Christine inside and asked, calmly, for Dr. Khan to take a look at her. Nurse Linda Null looked at the baby's head--eyes shut, mouth open, skin a pale gray-white--and thought immediately that the baby was dead. She called to Dr. Khan, who examined Christine and confirmed Null's fears to Marvin. Even after hearing Christine was dead, Marvin asked Khan what could be done for her. Null was surprised at the way Marvin still showed no emotion.
It fell to Null to examine Christine's body, and she was shocked and angered by what she found.
For one thing, the child was so cold and her rigor mortis so advanced that her legs were rigid, leading Null to believe she'd been dead for some time. (In an inactive baby, such as Christine may have been while not feeling well, it will take hours for rigor mortis to set in. In an active child, however, it can happen within minutes.) For another, Null had hold of a baby so emaciated that her ribs jutted out sharp as blades and her skin hung in loose folds. (The autopsy would later reveal no subcutaneous fat at all on Christine.) Upon weighing her, Null recorded her death weight at seven pounds four ounces--eleven ounces less than at birth and one pound two ounces less than when she'd been examined by Khan on August 10.
Finally, the little body's skin condition was very poor. Beneath thickly caked baby powder, her diaper rash was severe and there was an open sore on her hip. (Experts would later suggest the sore was the result of tissue breakdown that can occur with starvation.) Perhaps most shocking of all was that Christine's diaper was dry, whereas most humans defecate when they die. (The autopsy revealed that Christine's intestinal tract was completely clear when she died, which indicates the baby had not eaten in at least eight hours.)
As she pored over the skeletal corpse, a memory burned in Null's brain. She remembered the day Khan had seen Christine on her return from Phoenix, and she remembered Linda's unresponsiveness in the examining room. The nurse later wrote in a statement to the police that, watching the new mother that day, she had asked herself, "Who is going to take care of this baby?"
IN THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED, the most important player in the Clawson drama became Eric Larsen. A young lawyer who has taken it upon himself to prosecute all the dangerous crimes against children in Mohave County, it was up to him to bring charges.
He is known to be tough: Defense attorneys say his plea bargains can be severe. (He is also known to be good: Last year he was named Prosecutor of the Year by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council, an honor he says means you can "write your own ticket" in terms of public-sector lawyering in this state.) And yet he says that he hesitated a little as the evidence began to mount against the Clawsons. "[Detective] Jerry [LeClair] was hot to trot within a day or two of the child's death, but I said, `We don't have enough,'" Larsen remembers. It was important to Larsen that interviews be completed with Dr. Sprague and nurse Lee so that medical causes for the child's death other than simple starvation could be ruled out, Larsen says.
(Although Larsen says he was reluctant to point a finger at the Clawsons until he knew the truth about Christine's physical condition, the evidence doesn't necessarily bear out his statement: According to police reports and nurse Lee, LeClair's taped interviews with Sprague and Lee didn't take place until October 25, the day after the Clawsons were arrested. According to the police records, that interview was LeClair's very first with Sprague, although the detective's initial contacts with Lee had occurred nearly a week earlier.) In addition to the discrepancy of the interview dates, another inconsistency shows up in police records of research on the Clawson case: In the arrest summary prepared by Detective LeClair four days after the Clawsons were in custody, Dr. Sprague's statements are not accurately represented. The summary suggests an attempt to pin down an interpretation of events that supports the indictment of the Clawsons, or that may mean LeClair heard in Sprague's medical evaluation things that Sprague never intended to convey.
In the passage in question, LeClair refers to Sprague's opinion on whether Christine was destined to "thrive when she left the hospital." (The ability to "thrive" in this context relates specifically to a syndrome called "failure to thrive" that is found in some children, wherein they cannot utilize nutrients. Children with this condition may suffer from malnutrition even though they are eating normally--a medical fact that, had it been true of Christine, would have meant her parents were blameless in her death.) In his report, LeClair paraphrases that Sprague stated that, based on the tests Christine had undergone in the hospital, "he feels there is no reason why this baby should not have thrived."
But this was not exactly what Sprague said to LeClair. According to the typed transcripts of the interview, the doctor was asked by the detective, "If there was a problem that was missed [by your tests], would it contribute to anything that would cause the death of this baby like this?" And Sprague equivocated.
"That's a very difficult question," he said. "If there was, for example, an inborn error in metabolism, many of those will contribute to failure to thrive. If the baby had a neurologic reason for being floppy, for low tone, for not nippling well, then that certainly could also contribute to failure to thrive. . . . However, like I said, though, we did look fairly extensively for these problems and all the tests came up normal."
Contacted today, Sprague is even more noncommittal than he was to the detective. He points out that, as a specialist who deals entirely with newborns, he doesn't treat "failure to thrive" very often and isn't well versed in its causes. He provides the names of several other pediatricians who could be consulted for a more informed opinion. He also says that Christine Clawson wasn't tested for everything that results in the syndrome because there are a multitude of causes, and "a number of [them] can show up later in infancy that wouldn't show up in newborns and therefore would not be tested for."
(A pediatrician who's a local expert on failure to thrive, and who asked not to be identified, says that most instances of the syndrome "don't manifest themselves until we see the growth pattern of the child." He adds, however, that although there are a couple of "very rare metabolic diseases" that would cause a baby to die from the syndrome suddenly, these would not result in an emaciated baby like Christine Clawson. Whatever the causes, the vast majority of failure to thrive cases are accompanied by symptoms of diarrhea or excessive vomiting that did not occur in this baby, the doctor says.
He goes even further in a vein that bears out the theories of the prosecution. He says he's frequently seen parents with starving children insist their kids are being well fed--in exactly the way the Clawsons have insisted from the beginning. "It is so convincing," the doctor says. "They say, `I feed him eight ounces of this and sixty tablespoons of that.' And then you put [the child] in the hands of a nurturing nurse and ten days later he has gained weight.
"[The parents] know that they should love the baby and care for the baby and they feel embarrassed."
This doctor's opinions give spine to the theories formulated by the prosecution where Sprague's did not, and yet Sprague was the only physician with whom the detective consulted on this point.)
Whatever route he took to the decision, Larsen became convinced that an indictment for first-degree made sense. The deciding factor, he says, was his conclusion that the Clawsons "knew [Christine] was dying." He could tell this on the basis of "the physical condition of that child," Larsen says. "They had to know."
And he interprets the law to mean that "a knowledge that a child could be hurt by [parents'] actions" constitutes first-degree murder when an abused child dies in Arizona. That's the reason Larsen sent LeClair back to interview the Clawsons again and ask them, Do you know what happens when someone doesn't get enough to eat? (They do know.)
Public defender Everett disagrees, saying Larsen can't convict the Clawsons of first-degree murder unless he can prove they meant to kill the baby.
Larsen is, of course, regarded with distrust by Christine's parents and grandparents, who see conspiracy everywhere. "Those photos [of Christine] can be made to look like whatever you want to look like; they have very professional photographers," says Kathleen Jenner, Linda's mother. And whenever Larsen's name arises, Merle Jenner charges vaguely but ominously that "it's an election year."
But if it's frankly paranoid to believe that Larsen would plot to send two dull parents to their deaths in order to re-elect his boss, county attorney Bill Ekstrom, some onlookers believe he is the kind of lawyer who won't easily let go once he's got a theory. "He's got to be right. He's got to win," says Tom Thinnes, a Phoenix defense attorney who went up against Larsen last year. Thinnes adds that Larsen also wouldn't mind a bit the renown brought him by this high-profile case. "He is a grandstander," Thinnes says of Larsen, and he points out that the object of the grandstanding may be state attorney general Bob Corbin, for whom Larsen would like to work. (A Kingman defense attorney, Bill Porter, sees Larsen differently. "I've had a lot of cases on the other side of him, and I've never had any particular feeling that he is using a case just as a political gimmick," says Porter. But he adds, "He gets very personally involved. If he feels someone is a bad guy, he has a tendency to really go for the throat.")
Larsen acknowledges that his efforts to find a job in Corbin's office have begun, and says of the publicity surrounding the Clawsons, "I don't mind. It's certainly a boost to the career." (He is, in fact, publicity-friendly to the point that he granted a long interview for this article, a rare move among prosecutors who have yet to go to trial.) He adds, "But I don't view it as a political ploy to take this particular case." He believes the Clawsons are guilty of a very serious crime.
"I don't think they are bad people," he explains. "I don't think they should get death, or life." What should they get? "About ten years."
He says he knows he's got his work cut out for him now. "I anticipate it being my most difficult trial, to convince [the jury] to convict on first-degree without a real solid [motive]," he says. "Why would a parent allow this to happen? I don't know. I probably will never know.
"I have to believe that it was something akin to the dog. . . . Some of the neighbors speculated that [the Clawsons] didn't want the dog anymore so they just kind of forgot about it. A throwaway pet. . . . [With the baby] they got to a point where they just felt that this child was too much of a burden for them, and they reacted the way they have reacted in the past: They failed to adequately care for it."
And if that's what happened, Larsen cannot buy ignorance as an excuse. "As I was sitting at the table during one of Everett's direct examinations [during the bond hearing], I thought to myself that stupidity excuses a lot of things, but stupid people deserve the same justice as everyone else," he says.
AS THE TRIAL APPROACHES, public defenders Ken Everett and Ruth O'Neill find themselves counting on jurors who won't see it Larsen's way. "Larsen is going to be able to wave his pictures [of Christine] around, and I see the possibility of jurors getting incensed over parents that would do this to their little baby," says Everett. "We have to make sure that the jury is not swept up in that emotion. I would like to think we are going to have a jury that will shake their heads and say, `They have been through enough.'"
This is what Everett wishes for because he thinks it's his best shot. Although the Clawsons and their families insist that Marvin and Linda did nothing wrong--that Christine died only because of a condition the doctors missed that made her unable to utilize her formula--Everett brushes their protestations of innocence aside. He thinks Christine probably just wasn't fed properly. "I think they are that stupid, that is the bottom line," says Everett. "I think that they thought they were feeding the baby and they weren't."
He draws a possible scenario: Maybe Linda would sometimes leave the baby on the couch with a bottle without realizing a newborn cannot feed itself. When Linda returned, when the formula had dribbled into the sofa, she may have believed Christine was fed.
But it's only a theory, one born of his inability so far to determine that, when Christine left the hospital, she was ill in a way that would have caused her to starve. He knows that he's trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle but hasn't got all the pieces. "I will never know [what happened], because these poor kids have gotten so many ideas thrown at their heads from so many sources that they don't know the story either," he admits.
Whenever Everett talks about the "poor kids," it's with disbelieving laughter that doesn't mask his pity. "I really do not think that they meant to kill this kid, and I'm not saying that just because I'm defending them," he says. "I don't have the anger, even though I am a father, that the other people who don't know these people have. You just feel so sorry for them that that outweighs any other sorrow you may have had."
He thinks they are pitiable enough that it can be proven: As part of formulating his defense, he will call in doctors to evaluate the Clawsons' abilities. "If I can get some doctors in there who will say, `These people can't tie their shoes,' how can that hurt me?" he asks.
If it doesn't actually help him--if the Clawsons are convicted--he thinks the danger posed is larger than the one of this baby's death. He says of Larsen, "Where is this guy going to stop? Child abuse is all he does. Every time an infant crib death happens are we going to see indictments come down where we have to prove it was SIDS?"
THE DAY AFTER THEY'RE released on bond, the celebrating is suddenly over for the Clawsons. They've discovered that their lives are shards. For the three months they were in jail, they believed that when they were free, Marvin would be allowed to reclaim his job at American Woodmark. They thought, perhaps, that the relief of reunion would overshadow the new shapes in their lives: A back bedroom in someone else's house, a death certificate that will always mark the passing of their only child with the word "homicide." This morning they've learned that Marvin will not be rehired, and they are realizing that in Kingman, a town of only about 25,000, they're likely to be known forever as the people who killed their baby. As they down stacks of pancakes in Merle Jenner's sunny kitchen, the new facts seem to bewilder them.
"No one really likes the Clawsons in this town," Linda says. Her voice is lost.
They speak of their months in jail and the unexpected strengths they discovered there. For a couple of maimed individuals who'd found their first real security as lovers, perhaps the hardest aspect was their separation. Linda describes the way her fellow inmates preyed upon her by taunting, "Your husband ought to get the electric chair!" This sentiment goaded her into battle: She finally slapped a tormentor's face and yanked her hair. In turn, Linda's stomach got kicked and her glasses flew across the room. "There, bitch, see if you can see me," she heard her fellow inmate growl.
"I can see well enough to beat the crap out of you," she replied.
Marvin's prison stint was violent, too: He spent only four days in the general jail population before being jumped. He endured passively the attack from behind; he says, "I never was a troublemaker." Sporting a black eye and bruises, he retreated to protective custody for the rest of his stay, communicating yearningly with his wife through the letters they were allowed to exchange. "We had only been married a year and four months when this happened, and I'm very devoted to her," he explains. He explains his feelings for her every chance he gets.
If anything, the devotion has grown. "I think we've been able to trust each other, to know that no matter what people say about us that we have faith to know it's not truth," Linda says. "I was told a lot of times in jail, `Hey, your husband's going to leave you. He doesn't want somebody that killed his baby.' I said, `Well, I know better than that.'"
Her experiences in jail have left Linda terrified of prison. She knows that if she's convicted, her handicaps and the "baby- killer" label will make her a sitting duck for fierce inmates. "I have the fear that . . . somebody's gonna kill me," she says.
She and Marvin like to dream about the life that awaits them if they escape the reality of these fears. If they're acquitted, they'll leave the state, they say. "I feel that we should be able to get on with our life," Linda says. "I feel we should both get jobs, get a house of our own, maybe have another child, and just be able to start our life all over again."
This reverie with an interviewer has been running along smoothly, but now it absorbs Linda's statement and staggers to a halt. She has mentioned another child. She has mentioned another child. After all the tangled things they've endured, these two feel so confident and blameless that they envision a baby in their future this easily. They are asked, "So you'd do it again?" And as the question is put to them, their impassive faces do not stir.
"I know they keep saying that we did not care for our child, but I know very well we cared for our daughter," Marvin says. His voice is rhythmic, as though he's said it many times. "I loved her dearly when she was first born, and I loved her even more right up to the end. And I still love her."
The Clawsons' friends and family members insist that these two "slow" kids didn't plan their daughter's withering death.
The judge leans back as though he's suddenly tired of the human race.
"I do not see any incompetence on Dr. Khan's part. Who in their right mind could have imagined parents failing to feed their child?"
When he was a boy, he told his father that the other schoolchildren called him a "retardo."
Marvin finally "just took it on a hope" that Linda would consent to be his girl.
He says he did nothing wrong, that the problem was in the dog. It's the same thing he would say when his daughter died.
The thing she did on her own was produce a terribly ill baby.
Even after hearing Christine was dead, Marvin asked the doctor what could be done for her.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I think that they thought they were feeding the baby and they weren't."
"If I can get some doctors in there who will say, `These people can't tie their shoes,' how can that hurt me?"
"I feel we should both get jobs, get a house of our own, maybe have another child, and just be able to start our life all over again.